Thoughts on Fantasy, Race, and Dungeons and Dragons

The Wizards of the Coast has recently released a statement on the depictions of fantasy races in their TTRPG, Dungeons and Dragons. You can read it here.

I want to start by looking at the primary goal of the statement:

“One of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D is to depict humanity in all its beautiful diversity by depicting characters who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs. We want everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products. “Human” in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans, and the D&D community is now more diverse than it’s ever been.”

I think this is awesome. I love it. One of the things I love most about playing a TTRPG with a bunch of people is how it can build friendships with people I probably would never have met; something I have only seen in gatherings of faith. I also love exploring the different aspects of what is called “race” in D&D 5e (and most RPGs). This is especially rich in the two books they mention: Eberron and Wildemount.

I think that these locations, Eberron being the setting I’m more used to looking at, allow for races to be treated as closer to the idea of “ethnicity.” Part of my dissertation on fantasy works included ideas of othering; denigrating people who look and/or behave outside of the “in” group. Some of this is not as problematic in fantasy, depending on how it is treated.

Orcs in Tolkien are a great example of this being treated well: there are monsters (notice, not people) who are created in a similar fashion to weapons. These people work for the benefit of a literal Dark Lord. Easterlings in Tolkin are a great example of this NOT being treated well. They are people who are coded as middle eastern and who are, for some reason, inherently bad and work for that same dark lord… So, even the granddad of fantasy doesn’t do it perfectly, but thankfully D&D has always (mostly) understood that humanoids have more moral nuance. (For a deeper look at orcs, check out my article here.)

What D&D has actually created in their own work in regard to orcs and drow is how they have inserted the races into their own worlds, especially with the Forgotten Realms (see the Sword Coast guide; most adventures set in D&D 5e for an example). This realm is trying to recapture the Tolkien simplicity with each people having a bent toward a certain alignment (more on alignment in a later post). However, instead of monstrocities or aberrations as others are called, drow are literally humanoids (who usually, but not always, make bad decisions for some reason) and orcs have become tribal barbarians with an intent to destroy. This tribal coding with orcs added an extra layer of bad ethnic ideas to the premise of the locale and the games which feature orcs. They’re now a people group which has been treated with the same brush as any African tribe who stood up to Europeans, or tribe which stood up to Rome, or anyone who lived in fear of the Mongolians under Genghis Khan. There could be a lot more on this, but essentially, any time there is a powerful enough “outsider” they seem to be painted as blood-thirsty and idiotic by the “insiders” like those in the Lords Alliance lands along the Sword Coast.

Essentially, Wizards of the Coast seems to be realizing that they’ve been depicting the orcs in the same way that the Spanish conquistadors depicted the Aztec; and are looking at moving to how we depict the Aztec now. (Perhaps problematic, but hopefully with a lot more nuance.)

I think it would be fascinating to see some kind of reconciliation along the lines of “We’re not the monsters your people make us out to be” in a story or supplement. (Even something as simple as The Mandalorian’s treatment of the “sandpeople” wouldn’t go amiss.)

Another option would be to go back and say orcs aren’t a people, they’re monsters who are created as living weapons and simply serve dark purposes similar to demons (as Tolkien used them). I hope they don’t do this especially because of my time with Eberron and the warforged, a people group literally created to fight war for humanoids and who are now trying to find their place in a world which has newly found peace. One of the reasons I like Eberron more than the Forgotten Realms is because of the nuance that gets to come into play with characters in general, even across ethnicity, religion, and organization divides; I think going backwards would be a disservice to the lore and the fans.

All of these goals to depict people groups as people are great. I completely stand by it; I’m excited for it.

Now for the part I don’t like, but can be fixed pretty easily:

The soft 5.5 announcement. That’s not what they called it, but if Wizards of the Coast is going to revamp character creation drastically, that’s going to change a fundamental part of the 5e system. Maybe it shouldn’t be called 5.5. Maybe it should be called 5.25. Or 5.1. But the issue they’re trying to fix, as a separate issue, is that people choose certain class and race combinations more frequently than others.

Their announcement states, “Later this year, we will release a product (not yet announced) that offers a way for a player to customize their character’s origin, including the option to change the ability score increases that come from being an elf, a dwarf, or one of D&D’s many other playable folk. This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.”

While anyone who knows me knows that I will probably jump at any book D&D puts out, and I am always happy to provide more options to the players, I don’t really like that it’s putting a price-tag on a fix before we can see it in Unearthed Arcana or elsewhere. I also don’t really feel that I as a player or DM didn’t have the capability of creating individuals with capabilities all their own.

Maybe it will all be fine (hopefully better than fine).

But, if I were at Wizards of the Coast and wanted to look at ways to fix the problem of race being too tied to aspects of a character, I would start looking out at other TTRPG systems which have separated some of these aspects out. The first two to come to mind:

  1. The Witcher
  2. Dragon Age

The Witcher TTRPG includes a racial selection, but it is plain that most of your character comes from the class, nation of origin, and life-path decisions/rolls.

The Dragon Age TTRPG rolls most of the selections into one and gives you a table: you choose an Orlesian noble or a dalish elf or a duster dwarf and then your class. (Dwarves being the only ones forbidden from being mages because of their distinct lack of connection to the Fade.)

A system which emphasizes background more, perhaps including some homeland component could go a long way in this. I tried my own hand at it with Eberron’s Aundair, which is free on the Dungeon Master’s Guild.

So what I’m hoping for is that Wizards of the Coast does get better at representing ethnicities as legitimate, complex people groups. (And, dear God, may they do a better job that Netflix’s Bright.) I’m nervous that they system patch they’re going to do will be half-hearted; I’m worried what price tag they may place on the patch. But, the Wizards of the Coast have created a system which has gone on for decades. I just hope that they know what they’re doing.

Thank you for reading.

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